Real-life learning opportunities: Performing arts – more than just a stage

Waverly Christian College, Auditorium

By Virginia Ross and Tammy Beck, Williams Ross Architects

The performing arts are consistently at the forefront of schools considering a holistic approach to education. The subjects of music, drama and theatre actively engage students with one another, expose them to new cultural interests, allow them to explore creativity and build their confidence by showcasing their skills to the community. Williams Ross Architects are proud to have worked with both state and private Victorian schools over many years and project types. We have helped educators develop facilities to suit various approaches to contemporary teaching and learning.

Planning for a theatre

It is important to consider allied uses to ensure the new facilities become the ‘heart’ of the campus as an event and community gathering space.

Amenities to consider:

  • An adjacent hospitality kitchen for student use
  • A beautiful forecourt of green space that the theatre foyer connects to — reduce the cost of expensive foyers and create a cohesive indoor-outdoor experience
  • Flexible spaces — WRA designed the multi-use theatre at the Siena College St Catherine’s Centre to share a foyer with the Learning Centre, providing the ability to open up for large audiences and events

Clever planning of the theatre back-of-house and performance spaces so they are multi-purpose and usable for day-to-day school life ensure the investment can be used throughout the school year — at the St James College Visual and Performing Arts Centre, Williams Ross designed a flexible-format studio theatre with retractable seating bank and operable walls to divide the space into two learning spaces when not in theatre-mode.

Efficient and productive spatial planning strategies include:

  • dressing rooms that can extend into adjacent classrooms when needed for a large ensemble
  • adjacent, well-designed drama and rehearsal spaces as green rooms, or even as small, intimate performance spaces themselves
  • adjacent music school so that performances can easily take place in the theatre without transporting instruments.

Consideration of location and access to the theatre provide engagement with outside community members. This allows schools to partner with local community groups, clubs and organisations to share resources, joint productions for students, and provide new revenue opportunities. Williams Ross achieved this at the shared venue for Waverley Christian College and CityLife Church. During the week, the building functions as a gym and auditorium, and on the weekends as a welcoming, community space for up to 1,000 church members.

Real-life learning opportunities

Designing the theatre infrastructure to be safely accessed by students enrichens the school curriculum by providing opportunities to learn Theatre Studies and Stage Craft.

Specialist equipment to consider:

  • motorised winched grids and lighting bars
  • fully accessible control rooms with professional equipment.

WRA has worked with many experts in professional performing arts facilities — lately, we have seen the inclusion of tension wire grids in theatres that provide a greater level of safety and access to high areas. Harnesses are not required, and students can gather around theatrical equipment in small groups for hands-on tutorials by technical staff

Siena College, St Catherine’s Centre

Designing a theatre

With such diversity in uses and requirements, schools must carefully consider the design of performing arts facilities to ensure the investment made is future-proofed and provide benefits to all students and the school community.

Objectives to consider throughout the design process:

  • Engage a consultant team with expertise in theatre design — these are highly technical and expensive facilities that require experience to design correctly.
  • Allow time to develop the theatre brief with the architect and consider its context in the overall master plan of the school. Be open to all the opportunities a performing arts space can offer to every aspect of school life and involving the students and parents in the briefing stages.
  • Great space acoustics are vital.
  • Sprung floor — consider the benefits of a ‘working’ black theatre floor versus a polished timber floor.
  • Seating — retractable in a flat floor Studio Theatre, or a more formal fixed tier seating arrangement — this will impact directly on the multi-use aspects of the space.

WRA supports these design and construction projects to make learning rich and relevant. Education is a life-long journey — we value an educational experience that embraces and reflects societal and cultural needs.

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